In her haunting lyric on American racism, Citizen, Claudia Rankine writes, “All living is listening for a throat to open —/ The length of its silence shaping lives. […] the length of the silence becoming a living.” Those are the lines that came to me when I finally put down the breathtaking Photostats: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, closed my eyes, and cried.
This past summer, Andrea Rosen and David Zwirner galleries asked over 1,000 art-influencers to recreate Gonzalez-Torres’s installation “Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner)” (1990) and document the piles of cookies as they were eaten and replenished. The result was a cringe-worthy onslaught of stylized Instagram photos featuring designer dogs and even more-designer homes, in the middle of a pandemic that has left millions —and by extremes people of color here in the United States — suffering severe food crises and homelessness, let alone the daily horror of watching loved ones die senselessly around us, from Covid-19 or at the hands of the police.
In a 1993 interview with artist Tim Rollins, Gonzalez-Torres described his art-making as “a way of working out my position within this patriarchal culture.” Citing a photograph he had recently seen of a Yugoslavian soldier kicking the bodies of two dead Muslim women, he said:
This soldier is a man who probably has a god, a man who performs his duty, a ‘family man,’ a hero […] who has the kind of respect that I as a gay man will never have. How do I deal with a culture that will give him a medal of ‘honor’? In a way I’m trying to negotiate my position within this culture by making this artwork. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel? Who am I supposed to identify with? And finally, above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art […] .
Photostats honors Gonzalez-Torres in all the right ways. In this small book of black pages, the artist leans deep into the trenches of silence that have become our living — hate and power and violence, but also self and joy and loss, and the private ache of existential crisis (How do I deal with a culture that will give him a medal of “honor”? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel?) as he struggled toward clearings of love and life in the wake of so much death and hate. Gonzalez-Torres started his work on the photostats (also known as “dateline” pieces) in 1987, at the height of the AIDS epidemic — that other pandemic of our recent history, to which the federal government responded, criminally, far too late. He lost his partner, Ross Laycock, to the disease in 1991 and succumbed himself in 1997. Gonzalez-Torres isn’t here today to help us speak from the dark recesses of 2020, but praise to Siglio Press for giving us his voice and vision when we need it most.
In their original form, the series of photostats included in Siglio’s edition are approximately nine by twelve-inch black fields (though they vary in size) imprinted along the bottom with horizontal lists of dates, names, and events in white text. The dates and events coalesce not around chronology or even always obviously related histories, but rather what might be called history-present palimpsests of subjugation and violence. The originals are framed behind glass to create a reflective surface in which the viewer sees herself. The book, which juxtaposes photos of the framed originals with reprints, is an intimate six-by-eight do-si-do (two books in one, back-to-back) that can be read forward or backward with distinct experiences — a sensitive choice considering the importance of public engagement and self-awareness in Gonzalez-Torres’s work.
I opened Photostats for the first time to the side of the book that spills into full-bleed pages of turbid black fields that seem to recede and expand, and fall like night across all of New York City around me, as some ticker-tape epitaph flashes along the bottom edge. (Gonzalez-Torres’s photostats have also appeared as billboards in the city, most famously Untitled (People with Aids) in Greenwich Village on anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots.) It may not be fair to call the text a ticker-tape epitaph, though. The texts, while almost always documenting large-scale acts of violence and injustice in recent American and “Western” history, are also often interspersed with the small-scale details of individual lives. To my mind, they are best described as concrete poems that speak to the ethics of memory in a culture of coerced and embodied forgetting; collages of remembering, naming, and the contention of individual existence, particularly that of the marginalized and dispossessed:
Alabama 1964 Safer Sex 1985 Disco
Donuts 1979 Cardinal O’Connor 1987
Klaus Barbie 1944 Napalm 1972 C.O.D.
They will take your breath away.
Gonzalez-Torres took the constructs of linear history, authority, and authorship and stretched them open into living fields that impel the viewer’s awareness of her presence and participation. Part of this process includes interaction and response. “Without the public these works are nothing … I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.” And indeed, in the center of Photostats, there are two responses, by writers Ann Lauterbach and Mónica de la Torre, that do just that. They are not essays, and they neither interpret nor explain the work, but instead join the work and take part. De la Torre inverts Gonzalez-Torres’s black fields and minimal text into clouds of events and names that drift up from the original poems, further overlaying past onto present. Lauterbach’s response in particular astonishes, keeling into the dark expanse of our current coordinates; her stuttering and gasping prose envelops you and carries you, clutched and fumbling forward into her own cry of fear and loss and justice that powerfully joins Gonzalez-Torres’s own:
I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.
Photostats: Felix Gonzalez-Torres (2020), with writings by Mónica de la Torre and Ann Lauterbach, edited by Richard Kraft and Lisa Pearson, is published by Siglio Press.
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Author: Elizabeth Zuba